That ISAF/UN attempt to win over the hearts and minds of Afghanistan has not been a great success, but the campaign by the Taliban to win over those of the domestic populations of the West has been a victory beyond their wildest expectations.
This is the first part of a two part series on Afghanistan.
The war for the hearts and minds of Afghanistan may be the most important propaganda campaign to the West since its long and bitter fight against Communism over two decades ago. However, unlike the Cold War, it is not a fight between two powers stuck in a precarious balance of equal and all-powerful military might. This is a war of power so disproportionate that it has made the battle of ideals so much more vital, not less so. In a conflict where the military balance is so one-sided, it is the hearts and minds of those both abroad and at home which have become the battlefield for both sides.
The Taliban could never hope to inflict any defeat on ISAF (International Security Assistance Force) forces large enough to swing the conflict in their favour. To do so would have required numbers, equipment and organisation beyond which the organisation was capable of even at its most powerful. Even the rise of new powerful groups such as the Haqqani network poses no real threat to ISAF forces as a whole. Even a total of three thousand casualties over the last decade is a relatively small loss in real terms against a total strength of over one hundred thousand and very little in comparison to the over twenty thousand Taliban and affiliated fighters killed in the conflict. The worst ever single loss of life for ISAF forces was a helicopter shot down, killing 38.
38 simply isn’t a large loss of life. Six harriers destroyed in the attack on Camp Bastion last month may be a the most serious aircraft loss for the US since Vietnam, but is a drop in the ocean to the US defence budget. With their capability to cause any form of military defeat significant enough to cripple with ISAF forces almost completely out of reach, and the continuing losses to their own more limited forces a constant of their campaign, how is it so many are saying the Taliban is winning the war, and why is NATO drawing out so soon from an unfinished conflict?
The truth lies not in military might and casualty figures but with hearts and minds, and not those of the population of Afghanistan. That ISAF/UN attempt to win over the hearts and minds of Afghanistan has not been a great success, but the campaign by the Taliban to win over those of the domestic populations of the West has been a victory beyond their wildest expectations.
By this I do not mean that the Taliban have succeeded in turning western populations to violent Islamist extremism and a fundamental interpretation of Sharia law. Instead they succeeded in doing exactly what Osama bin Laden set out to do in 2001. Even before the war was launched, Bin Laden stated his aim as to “provoke and bait” the United States into “bleeding wars” on Muslim lands, claiming: “since Americans [...] do not have the stomach for a long and bloody fight, they will eventually give up and leave the Middle East to its fate.”
When the US and UK forces withdraw from Afghanistan in 2014 their greatest defeat will not be military, it will be psychological. They will withdraw with heads hung and eyes lowered. They will return to countries where their home populations have long seen their mission as pointless, unjust or an inevitable failure. Too many have tied the UN-sanctioned, internationally supported mission with the illegal invasion of Iraq which followed.
If ISAF forces retreat from Afghanistan, and it proves too early, before the Afghan government can itself secure the mountainous country and so releasing Afghanistan into a chasm of extremist violence and chaos, it will prove the most significant defeat in NATO history. It will prove the strategic brilliance of Osama Bin Laden and the success of the brutally unjust tactics of friendly fire in the Green-on-Blue attacks. If the Taliban manage to break the Afghan government they will not inherit Afghanistan. After a decade of war they are too weak to consolidate control that they were not even capable of before the 2001 invasion. Instead Afghanistan will collapse in the face of waves of combatants from the Pakistan federal regions and the battle between Iranian Shia and Pakistani Sunnis which will follow. Afghanistan will become a pump for terrorist attacks far greater than anything seen in a decade.
Read the second part of this series here.
Photo credit: The U.S. Army